Russia's President Vladimir Putin quoted a Bible verse while saying Russian soldiers are “giving their souls” for their brothers in arms.
Addressing crowds at a Moscow rally to celebrate the eighth anniversary of his annexation of Crimea, the Russian leader saluted troops for the comradeship they had shown in the war, describing how they “cover each other from the bullets”.
Crowds packed into Luzhniki Stadium for the celebrations, waving the national flag and singing “Forward, Russia”.
He reiterated his accusation that Ukrainian authorities had persecuted Russians and Russian-speaking citizens in Ukraine.
He said the main purpose of the war was “to save people from this suffering and genocide”. The claim, which he has also made in the past, has been dismissed as absurd by independent analysts.
Mr Putin lauded Russian military personnel “heroically” fighting in Ukraine, and quoted the biblical verse from John 15:13, which reads: "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends."
“I think about the words from the Bible,” he said. “There’s no more love than if somebody gives their soul for his friends.”
“These words [are] from the holy Bible, our Christian Bible, from what is dear to people who profess this religion,” he said.
“The heart of the message is that this is a universal value for all the people and all the confessions of Russia, and first of all for our people the best indication [of] how our guys are fighting during this military operation.
“Shoulder to shoulder they are helping and supporting each other and when it’s necessary they cover as if it was their own brother, they cover each other from the bullets. We haven’t had such unity in a long time.”
Crowds cheered his speech before joining in with a musician singing “Forward, Russia”.
Moscow police said more than 200,000 people were in and around the stadium for the rally and concert. The event included well-known singer Oleg Gazmanov singing Made in the USSR, with the opening lines “Ukraine and Crimea, Belarus and Moldova, It’s all my country”.
As Mr Putin prepared to take the stage, speakers praised him as fighting Nazism in Ukraine, a claim flatly rejected by leaders around the globe.
The annexation of Crimea in 2014 triggered hostilities in eastern Ukraine, where fighting between Russia-backed separatists and government troops has claimed more than 10,000 lives.
Mr Putin’s attempt to use religion as a bizarre justification for his invasion of Ukraine came on day 23 of the war.
Western military analysts say the operation is not going as well as Mr Putin had hoped, with morale among troops hitting rock bottom amid reports of logistical challenges.
Fighting is raging in some suburbs of Kyiv but so far the invading troops have been unable to capture the city.